Monday, September 18, 2017

On Being Politically Homeless


Editor's note: this blog post was originally written in January 2016 and never published. After realizing this I've edited it to update it for today.

I've been wanting to write a blog post for some time about the politics and attitudes surrounding liberalism, "regressive leftism," Islam, and immigration. I was inspired by the events back in January of 2016 in Cologne Germany where groups of men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern and North African decent sexually assaulted hundreds of women and raped at least two. Some of those who committed the assaults may have been recently arrived refugees, and predictably, there were many conservatives saying "I told you so."

What I face here is a very complicated and tricky situation, and navigating it is like walking over a dilapidated roped bridge over a raging river: every step must be carefully planned.

I am at heart a liberal. I believe in liberty and equality and fairness and tolerance, and I despise racism and bigotry of all sorts. But the situation today regarding Islam, immigration, and political correctness is really challenging my liberal identity. Some of the things I hear coming out of the aptly termed "regressive left" are making me nauseous — while at the same time I can understand where they're coming from as a liberal myself.

Many people on the Left are genuinely concerned about racism and bigotry towards people of Middle Eastern or Asian ethnicity, but their political correctness inhibits them from acknowledging and coming to terms with the reality of what we face with Islam.

I am concerned about the rise of right-wing fascist groups and political parties in Europe and in other Western counties. I definitely don't want to see Europe go down that path. But at the same time, I'm concerned about rising immigration of people from Muslim majority counties into Europe. Just as I don't want to see Europe go down the road of right-wing fascism, I also don't want to see Europe in 30 years looking like Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

As a liberal, I want Europe to remain open and tolerant, but tolerating views that oppose that very same tolerance is in the long run problematic. There is a huge cultural clash between the disturbingly conservative views that many of those from Muslim majority countries hold, with the liberal, secular, and open European cultures. And labeling anyone who says that Europe should consider limiting its immigration a xenophobe, a racist, or a bigot, is highly unproductive. What many on the Left do not have any tolerance for is anything against their tolerance for multiculturalism. But meanwhile, they'll tolerate the sexism and homophobia of brown skinned Muslims because they're an "oppressed" minority in the West.

This level of hypocrisy is madness.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Top 10 Cognitive Biases We Need To Be Aware Of


Cognitive biases are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment, and are often studied in psychology and behavioral economics.

This is a list of what I think are probably the 10 most common and perhaps most harmful cognitive biases we have when we're discussing or debating. They constantly derail productive discourse and prevent us from thinking rationally and reaching truthful conclusions. Oh, and we all have them.

Here are the top 10 cognitive biases starting with the mother of all biases:

1. Confirmation bias: the tendency to seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence.

It also includes the tendency to be much more skeptical of evidence that disagrees with your existing beliefs.

Example:
  •  When we're looking for data to back up our views we notice that the ones that support it stand out as if they're blinking, and the ones that don't support it we ignore. It's so much easier for me to brush off disconfirming evidence and come up with easy justifications for it. 
How to fix it:
  • Be more skeptical about data that supports your views. Since your views are relying on that data, you should do an extra amount of work to ensure it is accurate. A few years ago when Chinese scientists claimed mathematical proof the universe came into existence spontaneously from nothing, I didn't accept it as proof despite my desire to do so. I made sure that the evidence stood the test of time first. 
  • Try and seek out data that is critical of your own view. I look for criticism of atheism all the time. I look for criticism of my political views all the time

2. Sunk-cost bias: the tendency to believe in something because of the cost sunk into that belief. (Hanging onto losing stocks, unsuccessful relationships, etc.)

Example:
  • Religious people holding onto creationism to the point of absurdity because they've believed it for so long.
  • My own belief in free will was held for years because I had held it for a long time and it had become such a deep part of my identity.
How to fix it:
  • The amount of time you believe in something should bear no importance to whether or not the view is true. 
  • Consider that the things you've believed for a longer amount of time might even mean they're less likely to be true, since you were likely younger and less knowledgeable when you started believing them.

3. Anchoring bias: the tendency to rely too heavily on a past reference or on one piece of information when making decisions.

Example:
  • We all have the tendency to refer to one piece of information that caught our attention because knowing all the pertinent information is just too difficult.
  • Scientific studies in health or medicine that get a lot of attention that are then falsified are still being used by people as the basis of their view.
How to fix it: 
  • If you're relying on a single data point to assess an issue or to come to a conclusion on it, you need to make sure that data point is accurate and representative of the subject matter. 
  • Don't base your views on a single data point, or let it too strongly influence your assessment. Read up on other studies. 
  • Recognize that you will likely make a guess about something based on a suggested value that is deliberately given to you in order to bias you in a particular way.

4. Framing effects: the tendency to draw different conclusions based on how data are presented.

Example:
  • According to a CNBC poll 4 years ago that surveyed two different groups. one was asked whether they opposed Obamacare, and the other the Affordable Care Act. 46% of the group that was asked about "Obamacare" was opposed to the law, while 37% of the group asked about the "Affordable Care Act" was opposed to the law.
  • At the same time, more people support "Obamacare" (29%) than those who support ACA (22%.) In other words, having "Obama" in the name "raises the positives and the negatives," as CNBC put it.
How to fix it:
  • Just like how peer review process withholds the names of the person being reviewed and the reviewer to help eliminate this bias, you should sometimes withhold the names of people or organizations when making a case. 
  • You should also study the merit of the data on its own rather than dismiss it entirely based on its source or whose name is associated with it. I will recognize for example when my political opponents are correct. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Another Reason Why The Claim "Goodness Is Grounded In God" Fails


Suppose I have five different theists who each believe in five different gods with varying moral attributes before me. They each argue that goodness is grounded in god and that without god there is no way to have objective moral values.

One by one they make their case and describe their god's moral attributes — one god loves homosexuals, the other four hate homosexuals; three are highly jealous, the other two humble; three say eating meat is immoral, the other two are indifferent to meat eating; two of them think men and women are equal, the other three say men are superior to women; three of them think abortion is justified, the other two say it isn't.

Suppose I'm also told by all believers that all of the gods share the same basic properties that the traditional notion of god has: timeless, changeless, immaterial mind, who also must be infinitely good, infinitely wise, and can do anything logically possible.


How can I ground moral goodness in "God" when I have multiple gods who each ground different and incompatible moral values — without having an objective standard that exists independently of all these gods that I can use to assess them by?

You see, telling me that god grounds goodness does nothing to tell me what goodness actually is and how I can identify goodness from non-goodness. It states an unintelligible, circular argument: God is goodness, and goodness is god.

Each theist tries to tell me that only their god grounds goodness, and not the others. But going by the whole notion of "God" grounding goodness, there is no way for me to tell which one actually is without an objective standard independently of god. I certainly can't rely on my moral intuitions. Moral intuitions are often culturally relative, and will be different in different people.

For this, any many other reasons, the notion that goodness is grounded in god fails.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

England's 1677 Proposed Atheism And Blasphemy Bill


There's a scene in the second episode of the excellent documentary Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief where Johnathan Miller meets with an archivist of the House of Lords and they search through the original drafts that would eventually become the 1697 Blasphemy Act. Miller discovers a frighteningly worded draft for a proposed Atheism and Blasphemy Bill, that luckily never made it into law. It proposed that

if any person, being the age of 16 years or more not being visibly and apparently distracted and out of his wits by sickness or natural infirmity, or not a mere natural fool, void of common sense, shall, after the day whereon the Royal Assent shall be given to this Act, be word or writing deny that there is a God [or deny either of the two Natures of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that is, His being both perfect God and perfect Man, or shall declare that he believes not in God,] ..... that person, upon complaint thereof made to any Justice of Peace, are due proof by two witnesses, shall be committed to prison, there to remain without bail or mainprise, in order to his trial, at which trial being by his peers legally convicted, he shall have no benefit of clergy, but judgment of death shall pass upon him [and execution shall follow, without pardon or reprieve, of which he is by this Act made altogether incapable]; (Bold mine)

Imagine living in a society with a law like that? This sounds very much like the blasphemy laws in modern day theocracies like Saudi Arabia. It's a good thing we in the West live in a time where we have a separation of church and state, and where we've mostly come to our senses about the victimless crime of blasphemy. See the full wording below.


To watch the full documentary go here: Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief 
See also the Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts

Monday, September 4, 2017

Nuance People, Nuance!



I've been inspired to write a short rant about how we need to promote the idea of nuance in our social, political, and ideological views. To me these nuances are common sense, but all too often in today's discourse they are all but forgotten.

  • You can hate Nazis and white supremacists and still be critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. 
  • You can be critical of US and Western foreign policy and still think that Islamic terrorists are inspired by the Islamic religion to commit violence.
  • You can agree with basic feminism, which is gender equality, and still be critical of many proponents and ideas of third wave feminism. 
  • You can think political correctness has gone too far and still agree that we should have some basic norms of respect and decency. 
  • You can think political correctness has gone too far and still be a liberal or a conservative who's against racism and sexism.
  • You can stand up for the freedom of speech for people with hateful ideologies and still be against what their ideology is about.
  • You can think Islam is a sexist, homophobic, and violent religion and still respect the human rights of Muslims.
  • You can stand for trans-rights and not be transphobic for not wanting to have sex with them.
  • You can stand for the rights of racial minorities and be critical of the crime problems and social issues in their communities.
  • You can be a liberal and be critical of Islam, contemporary feminism, and political correctness.
  • You can be a Republican or a conservative or even a Trump supporter and not be a racist, sexist, homophobic, Nazi sympathizer.
  • You can be for higher taxes on the rich and more government regulation and recognize that some tax laws and government regulations hurt the economy.
  • You can be an atheist and think that religion has positive social benefits.
  • You can think that there is legitimate criticism of Islam and not be an anti-Muslim bigot.
  • You can agree that some racists criticize Islam and not all critics of Islam are racists.
  • You can think that immigration needs to have controls and limits and not be a racist xenophobe.
  • You can stand for the rights of Muslims and not be a Jihadist.
  • You can support a political candidate and not agree with all their positions.
  • You can support a public figure and not agree with all their positions.
  • You can be critical of the State of Israel and not be an anti-Semitist.
  • You can be critical of the Palestinians and not be a Zionist.

These are just some of the nuanced views that are possible that today's social, political, and ideological debates seem to completely leave out. Because we've become way too tribalistic and black and white in our thinking, what we need to do is constantly remind ourselves and others that nuance exists. It's more important now than ever. As I think of more nuanced views in my interactions, I will be adding them to this list. If you have any suggestions to add, mention them down in the comment box and please spread the word!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

National Day Of Prayer


Prayer is the perfect solution to people who want to do nothing and yet still feel good about themselves.


"But Many Great Scientists Believed In God!"


Time for one quick counter-argument—

When debating the social effects of religion and atheism an inevitable argument coming from the religious will be something like, "But many great scientists were believers in God: Newton, Galileo, Faraday..."

OK. We atheists hear this a lot. Sometimes it's made by theists making the general claim that belief in god is compatible with science, sometimes it's made by theists making the specific claim that Christianity is compatible with science.


Regardless of the specifics here's my response:

Yes it is true that many great scientists have been believers in god, but it is also the case that prior to the late 1800s in Western culture you pretty much had to openly profess a belief in god. There were laws on the books in European countries that made it illegal to deny the existence of god or the truth of the Christian religion, and the penalties could be severe. Until the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Act 1677 the death penalty was applied for atheism in England. And throughout all of Europe, from the time the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as it's official religion, the Catholic Church (and then later the Protestant churches after the reformation) had a monopoly on academic institutions.

What all this means is that until fairly recently there were no secular institutions of higher learning in the West. And by law, you had to profess belief in god, usually the right version of god, in order to maintain your freedom, social status, and job — and in some cases your life. So to say that Newton and Gallileo were believers in god, or were Christians and were brilliant scientists ignores that point. During their time they had no ability to be otherwise. And even during the post-Enlightenment period when the punishments for disbelief and blasphemy stopped being enforced (even though in many cases they remained on the books into the 20th century) there was still a tremendous amount of social pressure to believe in the religious orthodoxy, just as there is now in the more religious parts of the US, and in the Islamic world.

It was not really until Darwin's time in the second half of the 1800s that we began to see the emergence of any sort of real social acceptability of agnosticism or atheism. It was only once you got past the turn of the 20th century to the time of Einstein, Popper, and Freud that atheism became acceptable in the sciences and philosophy. And once it became socially acceptable what did we see? We saw the floodgates open of atheists in the sciences and today most of the best scientists are atheists or agnostics. In other words, once it became socially acceptable to be an atheist in the sciences, atheism quickly became the dominant view.

So the main reason why many great scientists (as well as philosophers, thinkers, and inventors) were believers in god, was because years ago you had to be, and religious institutions held a monopoly on higher learning.

Now of course today there are many great living scientists who are believers in god. Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, Don Page, physicist and cosmologist, Francisco Ayala, evolutionary biologist and philosopher. But if you look at the many reasons why contemporary scientists and thinkers believe in god, it rarely, if ever, is inspired by their scientific views. It is usually based on some emotional epiphany or the popular notion that god is required to have morality. In Francis Collins's case for example, he was hiking in the Cascade mountains when he saw a frozen waterfall split in three and upon seeing this, dropped to his knees and accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.

Yeah.

Furthermore, we humans are very good are compartmentalizing beliefs. We can hold contradictory beliefs quite easily. So just because a scientist is a Christian, a Muslim, or another religion, it doesn't mean science is compatible with those religions.

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